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A Soldier's Tale 6: new beginnings? Perhaps!

Conscript Tolya has been moved again, this time to a show regiment. Life suddenly looks rather better, but is it for real?

20 May

Oh God, it’s already twenty to one.  We’ve been cleaning all day, at it since we got up.  I don’t know what time reveille is here – 6, 7, it’s unlikely to be at 8.  Most likely at 7.  Since that time we’ve been cleaning without a break and I’ve been meaning to sit down and write this letter.  I’ve just sat down, but awkwardly and at any moment someone might come and drag me off somewhere to fetch something or do something.  The bolder you are the less you get bothered.

Of course it goes without saying that no one bothers the “dembels”.  They sit around, dying of boredom and thinking up things for me to do so I can’t write my letter – I might have to wash something or move it from one place to another for the 10th time.  We “bitches” are not entitled to write letters at this stage of our service.  I have another bit of bad news.  My leg is healing up very fast, by which I mean as it always has done, not like in Omsk.  This means I shall soon be discharged from hospital.  That’s why I don’t have much time to write.

4 June

This is my first letter from the new place – from Tula – although I’ve been here for almost two weeks.

When I heard I was being moved from Ryazan to Tula, I was very upset at first.  Firstly, because my dacha was quite near Ryazan and secondly, because things weren’t too bad there.  But now I was being transferred.  They even discharged me from hospital double quick because of it.  I got really upset when I got to Tula.  The regiment here is an elite regiment, so everything is smooth, clean and beautiful.  The barracks are being refurbished to European standards.  While this is going on, we are living in tents in some field with deep gullys and mud, but no water.  On the whole the conditions are terrible, but we still have to be neatly turned out, shaven, washed and in clean clothes – and no one's in the slightest bit interested in how you achieve this.

Other lads have been fanning the flames by telling us that huge lorries unload pipes for the new barracks at night time.  It was unbearably hot and we were desperately thirsty, but there was nothing to drink.  The Minister of Defence was supposed to be visiting in a few days, which didn't help.  This meant that there was much more scouring and painting.

Here the soldiers are definitely watched.  Not like in Omsk, of course, but very different from Ryazan, where an inexperienced rookie like me could fuck off for a couple of hours and go for a drink and something to eat.  So I really wanted to go back to Ryazan, but that was when we had only just arrived.

Now I have no regrets at all.  It's turned out to be much better than I thought, mainly because of the relationships between people here.  The dembels and the sergeants treat us more like younger brothers than slaves.  To be honest, I'm quite unused to it, especially after Omsk.  People here treat you normally, like a human being, not an animal as they did in Omsk and even more than in Ryazan.  I don't know, of course, it may be that they simply haven't got on to our case yet…but I still feel that everything is much better here.

If I had come here straight from civvy street, I probably would't think much of it, but after the hell (I'm not afraid of describing it like that, it may have been OK for some, but it wasn't for me) of Omsk, things are really good here.  And that's even though I'm still a «bitch» and I still have to work out my stint for the dembels.

…In the army I feel rather like an anthropologist, who is sending reports to you on the mainland about this strange and terrible tribe.  From this point of view I really do have to do my stint for the dembels.  That way I can get more deeply into the life of the tribe and really get a feel for it.  But I am still a human being and don't really want to get involved in such crap.

I am now serving in a mechanised artillery battery in Tula, so I'm not only a trooper – I'm an artilleryman.  I've already been allocated a vehicle with a huge and threatening 120mm cannon which fires shells, mines and Christ alone knows what else…

..So, we're OK here – perhaps I'm just lucky in the detachment I'm in.  But on the whole things here are the same as they are throughout the army – the strong ones bully the weak and the old the young etc, though it's less marked here than elsewhere.  This is probably down to Mikha Ugolkov – the battery sergeant major.  He's a good man who considers that one person terrorising others is not on.  Sifonov, the platoon sergeant major in Omsk, was just the opposite and had no qualms about saying so.  Qualis rex, talis grex – it all depends on the man at the top.

Sifonov was a prize wrestler and Ugolkov is an ace at chess, which says it all.  Sifonov beat us mercilessly and indiscriminately.  Ugolkov took me aside one day and said that I shouldn't turn in on myself and get depressed.  He talked to me like a human being.  I'd long since forgotten what normal human relations are like when they're founded on mutual trust and respect.  And I certainly didn't expect anything like that from a sergeant.

The lads here are much better, more human.  But I'm not going to let my guard down yet – I can remember my first letters from Omsk telling you about the interesting weapons and the nice fellow soldiers from all over the country.  Now I would drive a stake into the graves of many of those fellow soliders.

..The weather is as usual – boiling hot or freezing cold and raining.  There's not much water here and it comes in tanks.  There's a lot of mud, but probably not for long – we'll be moving into the barracks for the winter.  There are the same army idiocies here, perhaps even more of them, but they've been so drummed into me that I've got used to them.  So not much point in writing about them.  They're something that no one who hasn't been in the army would understand anyway – and you do get to used to them.

..So I'm still spending a lot of time thinking about life outside, mainly in the future.  But about the past too.  What I do know is that dembels are dinosaurs from another planet and I’ll never, never get to that stage because it's hundreds of millions of light years away.  And anyone that tells you anything else is fomenting rebellion.  God, there's still so long to go!

 

Part 1 can be read here. (A new Russian army recruit writes home about life at a parachute regiment basic training camp). 

Part 2 can be read here (Tolya tells us about the food and how he has learnt to avoid being beaten up).

Part 3 can be read here (Tolya reflects on the bullying of the ‘bitches’ by the ‘grandpas’).

Part 4 can be read here (The army’s a mysterious entity, unknowable by anyone outside it, the conscript reflects).

Part 5 can be read here (Tolya hopes that things will be different, but his hopes are soon dashed) 

Part 7 can be read here (The bullying goes on – if anything it’s got worse)

Part 8 can be read here  (Violence is no joke) 

Part 9 can be read here (Tolya wonders what kind of man the army’s made of him)

These letters originally appeared on www.openspace.ru

Read On

The Russian Federation Ministry of Defence – official website.

The Consequences of Dedovshchina – Human Rights Watch Report, 2004

Golts, Alexander. "The Social and Political Condition of the Russian Military." In The Russian Military: Power and Policy, edited by Steven E. Miller and Dmitri Trenin, 73-94. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004

How to Dodge the Draft in Russia? , by Marina Kamenev, Moscow, Time Magazine, Mar.30, 2009

More On

These letters written by Tolya (probably not his real name), a private in the Russian army, were published on our partner site www.openspace.ru and attracted a lot of attention. Unlike his mates,  Tolya preferred to serve in the army rather than study at university. Even though these letters were written some time ago, few publications give such a clear indication of the shocking state of affairs in the Russian military. Tolya now lives in Kostroma.


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